On Learning Screenplay Format

Computer CatI’m not a teacher. It’s not that I’m not good at it. I’ve taught things to people before, but I don’t have the long term patience for drilling stuff into people’s heads. Put me in front of a class of thirty students and I’d start the hour teaching Calculus and end up making balloon animals.

I know how to make exactly two balloon animals: the herpes virus and The sandworms from Dune.

Last Thursday night I’m sitting in the library at the College of Santa Fe to get some writing done. I enjoy writing in libraries. They’re quiet and comfortable and full of people completely unlike me (i.e. published authors.) On this particular night I observe a young woman meet with a young man and sit down at a nearby table. She’s wearing a striped skirt and a maroon top. Her dark hair is pulled back in a ponytail. She’s soft-spoken, carries a binder and clings to a well-used tissue. The young man is stocky, with sandy hair. He’s got a black jacket on that’s a bit small for him. He has trouble modulating the volume of his voice, which is loud and cottony. From what I can tell, she’s here to provide some sort of guidance for his college career. If my guess is right, his studies have spiraled out of control and she’s here to help him.

Normally, that would be the extent of my interest. I would drop the headphones back on, turn up Steve Reich and get back to the script. But since the guy’s voice was so loud, I couldn’t help overhearing when they got to talking about his subjects and I realized that he’s a film student. He was taking History of World Cinema, Post Production and Fundamentals of Screenwriting. All the classes are giving him trouble, but what’s weighing on him is a script assignment.

Welcome to the ever-lovin’ club.

He’s having trouble with the homework, it seems. He’s also, apparently, opted against reading. TV and video games get in the way. She’s tries to map out his week and give him some sort of structure. “Do you feel you work better at night or during the day? What time do you wake up in the morning?” She asks those sorts of questions. His knees are moving back and forth. He’s tense. And then, briefly, when he’s describing the types of films he likes (Anime, for one, and action flicks) his knees stop moving. In that moment, the tutor’s own foot begins rocking back and forth, as if the nervous energy had passed from him to her. But now it’s back with him, because this is the point where she’s laying down suggestions and guidelines for his week. “Set your alarm for eight. Try to get some reading done in the morning. Try to cut back on television and games. What time do you usually go to dinner? Try to fit in an hour or two, four to five, or four to six to do some reading.”

He has a script idea, he says, but what’s giving him trouble is the format. What are all those indents and those CAPS and those transitions? Pleased to have a target on which to zero in, his tutor opens his syllabus and finds, buried within, a complete guide to screenplay format. The hapless student hadn’t even looked at the thing yet. So she suggests they go over it and see what they can learn.

“Font should be 12pt Courier. You know which font that is?”

He thinks about it for a second. “Not really.”

“You know how to change your font on the computer?”

“There’s no place to change that on my computer.”

“Do you use a Mac or a PC?,” she asks. It takes him a moment, but he’s able to answer that he uses a Mac

It’s at this point I realize that she’s trying to bail out the Titanic with a sugar spoon. This is where, if I were in her place, I’d say to the guy, “Well, that’s it. I can’t help you. Go play some video games.” But she says, “Let’s get on a computer and I can show you.” Why does she say this? Why does she persist when she could just throw up her hands and say, “Give it up, man, you’re never gonna be a screenwriter?” Because she’s a teacher, that’s why. Because she’s good at what she does. Because she’s selfless. Me? I’ve already given up. And I’m not even involved.

So in the spirit of teaching…

There are a ton of places on the web where an aspiring screenwriter can find a style guides for screenplay format. Just Google the term. But my own personal favorite is this one, hosted at the AMPAS website and written by April Rider. I don’t know if April Rider exists (I think she does,) but she’s written a clever series of scenes that demonstrate screenplay technique. It’s worth a read. Here’s the pdf.

So there. Go learn.

About the author: will

5 comments to “On Learning Screenplay Format”

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  1. Deadpan - March 6, 2008 at 5:46 pm Reply

    “This is where, if I were in her place, I’d say to the guy, ‘Well, that’s it. I can’t help you. Go play some video games.'”

    Funny shit.

    I’m not a patient man either. I’d probably try to teach him by cramming a textbook in his ear.

  2. Will - March 6, 2008 at 7:51 pm Reply

    Yeah, I know it. I think I could teach advanced students, you know? The ones who know more about covalent bonds than I do (that’s a hefty number of students, by the way.) But I admire the patience of the tutors and the people who help problem students. More power to them. I couldn’t do it.

  3. Rocketeer - March 11, 2008 at 11:23 am Reply

    Thanks, man. I’ve been Googling for a while and getting all kinds of stuff, sites etc. It’s always nice to have someone say.. “here.. check this out”

    I really enjoyed your library vignette.


  4. Will - March 11, 2008 at 11:29 am Reply

    No problem. I’m glad you actually got to the link. I should have put it at the top for people who don’t necessarily want to wade through the anecdotal stuff.

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